Stage XI: Abuji Cuo

你好!Nihao! Hello!

Anticipation surrounded the morning. We after off for a selection of steamed, boiled and grilled breakfast mainstays of Chinese breakfasts (across this huge nation). With that, those without raincoats purchased those disposable rain jackets designed to be worn for an hour or so. The kind that would make Mr Macintosh roll in his grave with tears. Not to mention environmentalists. Sorry Greta!

Abuji Cuo (阿布吉措) sounds Japanese. It certainly seems unlike Mandarin Chinese. It’s surrounded by the Ajiagang Mountains and stands high over meadows and scattered pasture houses. It’s well off the beaten track and fairly clean of trail litter. The name comes from one of the many local Yunnan languages and people but I couldn’t find a true translation or meaning. It is apparently very holy. The China National Highway 214 and Xiangli Expressway (toll road) are to the west. Here a dirt track leads under two bridges (the new Shangri-la railway line).

The car journey led us to a gate. It had a weight on one end and two barriers across the path ahead. Here began the wander. The base camp was labelled just that. The pathway was an old track, now used by loggers as well as the original farming people of these steep damp foothills.

Rounding a bend, the footpath exited the road, passing between free-range pigs and towards a slim yet fast-rushing stream. Our group of six with a local man tagging along crossed the stream over felled logs now doubling as a bridge. Here the path gently led to an open plain standing below the face of the mountains. The phone signal had soon disappeared – something good for the quiet ahead, but unusual on mainland China.

After passing through the deep lush green meadow, the path banked left over several bubbling streams complete with stepping stones and bridging points. Here the path zig-zagged up and across gaining altitude fast. It’s steep sections were marred by slippy sticky clay interspersed by sharp shards of rock. The sides of the path displayed vivid biodiversity with wild gooseberries, something like rhubarb and wild strawberry plants amongst the plethora of greenery.

A local Yunnan man Qī Lín(七林), a girl from Anhui, a student from Guangzhou, a girl from Heyuan, a girl from Hubei, and another girl (from somewhere in China) walked up in light to heavy rain. The thick cloud thinned and grew in almost pulsating slow motion. At times the valley behind seemed hidden. At others it became a tapestry of various green hues.

The imposing mountain to our right shoulder (mostly) could have been Skull Island from the King Kong movies. It’s ferocious face looked brittle and completely impervious to those intrepid climbers who like such nooks and crannies. The artistry of nature had created such a detailed spectacle. The top range of peaks could have been a crown, or a bed of thorns. It truly sets the imagination running as wild as the fight ravines within.

The stream accompanied the walk up, and at times became the pathway giving clear flow to passersby in need of a quenching swig of freshness. After one small lake the path hugs a slope covered in knife-sharp vicious broken rocks. Blue flowers emerge where the rocks allow soil to gather. The rug of land is unforgiving and not a place to stand in awe of the view ahead.

What lies ahead is possibly the greatest lake view I have ever seen. The cauldron of clear green and blue water appears impossibly deep. Local legend has it that there is no bottom to the icy water. It’s entirely believable. The edges look crystal clear but beyond that, well diving would be the only way to know what lies beneath. The surrounding slopes are mixed in terms of harsh angles but most are barren. Life is not easy. We were stood around 4300m and the highest point is about 500m above here.

The caldera-shape of the valley spreads wide and long. From numerous vantage points it’s hard to tell what started this paradise on high. The geological features and lay of the land are mesmerising. It grips your heart whilst choking your throat of air. You can suddenly become breathtakingly awestruck. You look. It stares back blankly. Rumour has it, if you speak to loud then rain will come. Here at the top, for the most part, rain eluded our group. The feeling of healing as you look around you at the majestic landscape is overwhelming. I couldn’t help but feel my heartstrings being tugged and a tear in my eye. There are few places left that are this pristine.

Shangri-la (香格里拉县/Xiānggélǐlāxiàn) is a county and a city that draws it’s English and Chinese names from James Hilton’s Lost Horizon. It influenced China to rename the Yunnan city of Zhōngdiàn (中甸) in 2001 to Shangri-la. The Shangri-la of Hilton’s writing could have been Kashmir, Tibet or anywhere else along the Kunlun Mountains of the author’s description. But, if James Hilton had have travelled to Yunnan and Abuji Cuo to see the steep cliffs, loose and rocky earth scattered with flora and colour, he may have set his chapters here.

Abuji Cuo is about 4 to 5 hours (around 17-20km) up and only accessible from May to October. The gate (near a temple) is manned and access denied at other times to allow ecological balance. Non-slip shoes are essential, although I spied a few people in sport shoes. One unlucky soul was sporting a sprained wrist, leg injury and looked sheepish. Her local guide was guiding her down ever so slowly. The muddy pathways demand good grips. The steep falls are lethal in appearance. And there are yaks. Yaks can surprise from above, and they did on our walk once or twice. Death by yaks would be rather a bad day at the office. The road starts between to Bixiang and XiaoZhongDianZhen.

The hamlets of Nigeria, where we drank milk, and the Niguqe (尼古个) hamlet are sparsely populated so expect to see few people. The nearby hamlet of Gangzhemu (岗者木) is close to a scenic spot called Bitahai (碧塔海景区) but that could easily be a different world. However, it would make a tasty multi-day hike with camping. Scope to return? Head to Bengla (崩拉)?

The walk back down was every bit as unforgettable as the ascent. Ancient woodlands caked in drapes of moss and lichens, the sound of a chorus of different birds and the smell of flowers give your senses a tasty day. After reaching the pasture at the cliff face, a local woman gave us hot potatoes, and well wishes. After that we walked to the road and were greeted by a drift (or drove) of pigs. The curious tail-wagging group led us to discover some local fruits, to which nobody knows the name. QiéZi gave me one that looks like it is shaped like a bottom. Rather cheeky!

Soon after Qī Lín (七林) introduced us to an elderly farming couple. Here we had hot milk, sour homemade yogurt and delicious cheese. The wooden cabin was a good end to a day’s hike and we bid the farmers goodbye before jumping in a car back to Shangri-la. The unique and diverse holy Abuji pasture would occupy our minds for the evening and I’m sure that visiting there, we gained something more.

Grid reference: 27.666254378118495, 99.90886934422305 (Abuji Cuo) to Bixiang village (27.604282621386876, 99.78759058373961). 14km distance as a local chough would fly.

再见!Zai Jian! Goodbye!

Stage VII: Chaka

你好!Nihao! Hello!

I arrived at Chaka Station (茶卡站, Chákǎ Zhàn) 151km from the gargantuan Qinghai Lake, and 300km from Xining. The smooth railway journey was sandwiched between sweeping views and seemingly endless tunnels. The train ground to a halt on the single track. A chugging diesel engine had swapped with an electrical unit at some stage of the journey. I guess that hour where I had a nap.

The station was immediately at the gate of the scenic area. Chákǎ 茶卡盐湖 Salt Lake (Yánhú) has a salted bed. That’s the reason for such a high level of reflection. There are salt mines around these parts. It’s known as a photographer’s wet dream. For 60RMB (less in off season) and a further 50RMB to board a quaint sightseeing train, there’s much to be seen across the 105 square kilometres of lake. I walked the 3km to my hotel, checked in and then walked back.

Chákǎ is a Tibetan word meaning salt lake. It’s located around 3059m (10,036′) above sea level. That’s probably the reason the Gaoyuanhong Inn has disposable oxygen canisters for sale. That and some salt products. Salt seems to be a thing here, having been mined for three millennia. I read the salt below the water can be 5 to 15 metres in depth. And, every time it rains more salt is brought down the valleys. The once sea area keeps providing. Some claim it is infinite.

There are sightseeing platforms and decking everywhere: a tall 30m tower; a platform with the words ‘I love Caka’; two hearts in love as a platform; and the mirror of sky squares. It’s a real draw for tourism, apparently attracting over a million visitors a year. Sculptures are present and some honour the Wuxian tribes who once harvested the plains and salts of Chaka. Closer to the present there’s an abandoned salt factory and salt-mining transportation hub. There are yachts, helicopters and all manner of ways to see the lake’s splendour.

A smaller lake, Sky Number One Lake, is a little east of Chaka Lake. However, I’m not rushing to it. My experience of saltwater is that it stings broken blisters, makes you really dry and forms a crusty layer over your skin. I’ll take it easy and enjoy the sunrise then have a wander.

Zai jian! Goodbye! 再见

Tashi Delek

Tashi Delek / 你好 / Hey, hey!

It was Christmas Eve and I enjoyed scrambled eggs, with toast and cappuccino. I decided to have an easy day of wandering. To acclimatize to altitude is important. I drank ginger tea, water and ate bananas with other dried fruits. Other tricks include walking high and then sleeping low. So, for Christmas Eve, I looked for a bumpy mountain. I had my eye on a few peaks around this valley that envelopes Shangri La city. The cold was manageable with a City shirt and my trusted Sherpa jacket. The Italian wool socks were and are highly effective too. Nighttime hit -12C outside but inside a Green Tree Hotel it was standard room temperature.

Following a late breakfast at The Compass, I headed to LánYuèGǔ (蓝月谷) which translates to Blue Moon Valley. It’s real name is Shika Mountain (石卡山; Shíkǎshān) and it towers to the west above Diqing Shangri-La Airport (DIG). The airport is at at around 3280m. I was able to wander up to about 3500m, way shy of the peak towering above. There were too many people saying, “You shall not pass.” Strong winds had closed the nearby cable car and every path upwards. Rules is rules. I headed back and spotted some cranes, a photo opportunity or two and plenty of construction. Some splendid stupas and magnificent views made for a pleasant wander. Blue Moon wasn’t all that, but the name belongs to City’s chant so what’d you expect?

In the evening, I enjoyed local Tibetan food and hospitality before heading back to rest. I woke up in the same Green Tree hotel, opposite the city bus station. At 08:20, I was on a bus headed for Déqīn town or city. Unsure what it actually is. From there many trails lead off to waterfalls, glaciers and villages.  This area is spelled as Diqen, Díqìng and Deqin (བདེ་ཆེན་རྫོང་). It’s rather confusing. Since Tibet handed over Kham province to Yunnan province, it’s become autonomous (迪庆藏族自治州). The many names should be a starting point for a clear up. By noon, after a climbing route of a road trip, the bus pulled into Deqing city’s bus station. Here I was told that I could go onto Feilaisi (飞来寺) village. I agreed and returned after a quick lunch. Less than an hour later and the bus halted outside a terrace of hotels. Opposite stood a rather imposing two metre wall. Beyond that wall, a view to a kill. The picturesque and snow capped range of MeiLi Snow Mountain (梅里雪山).

After a few minutes standing outside I checked into the a catching named hotel, Deqin Snow Mountain Town Tourist Reception Center (No.2 Reception). I couldn’t find the sequel. After dropping my bag up four flights of stairs, I grabbed my camera and crossed the road into the Mingzhu Langka Viewing Platform, and following my health code check, I was away to wander and enjoy the view. The panoramic settings on cameras was made especially for this kind of scene. The clear air, beautiful blue skies and Lancang river valley below only added to the dramatic setting. A main deck with 8 stupas, a rare Mani wall, and an abundance of prayer flags made my Christmas Day special in ways I hadn’t previously imagined.

The fluttering sound of prayer flags, slapping each other, and spiraling up and down on winds with the fragrance of incense and juniper took me moments to clear my mind. The overwhelming scenery had swallowed me up. With each majestic cloud hovering like a pirouette over the many peaks, it was easy to catch my jaw falling lower than usual. The interjection ‘wow’ felt seriously below par, yet it flew out of my mouth with consummate ease. The main peak, Kawagarbo, is 6740m up. Tibetan people refer to it as Nyainqênkawagarbo. It’s a hugely sacred mountain and climbing is banned. Climbers have tried and in 1991 it claimed 17 members of one expedition. It is a sinister and magnificent looking mountain range with twenty peaks, of those 6 tower over 6000m. Tibetan pilgrims cover a different distance each year, circumambulating 240km (150 miles) around the mountain base, praying to the warrior God inside the mountain. This UNESCO World Heritage Site has a real spiritual ambience. I’d look upon the framed snow peaks on both Christmas Day and Boxing Day in wonder. Absolutely stunning.

On Boxing Day, my light stroll rewarded me with views of at least ten vultures and different angles of the mountains over the raging river below. Dinner was nothing to shout home about but the oranges and pomegranates around Feilaisi certainly need a positive mention.

The walk goes on…